Asian and Asian-American actors and actresses are commonly seen starring front and center in major films these days, whether it’s the recent Mortal Kombat film, last year’s live-action Mulan, or the ultra-successful Crazy Rich Asians.
But just a few decades ago, about the only household Asian names starring Hollywood films were Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. Clearly, times have changed.
Part of the transition to the modern film era of writing relatable Asian characters into screenplays began with the hit ABC series Lost created by J.J. Abrams, Damon Lindelof, and Jeffrey Lieber.
Lost was an American drama series in the mid to late 2000s that featured Jin-Soo Kwon and Sun-Hwa Kwon, a Korean couple lost on mysterious island.
The husband and wife duo were portrayed by Daniel Dae Kim and Yunjin Kim, and they went on to become fan favorites featured prominently throughout each season over the course of the series’ six-year run.
But actor Daniel Dae Kim didn’t always think it would be that way. Early on while shooting the pilot episode for the series, he was deeply uncomfortable with the way his character Jin-Soo Kwon was written.
“When I read the script for the pilot, I knew this was a land mine,” Kim said in a recent interview with Vulture. “My greatest fear was that the pilot of Lost would air but the series would not, because if you were to see the pilot as the totality of my character, you would have been left with that stereotype.”
Kim saw the character as being so problematic he actually confronted the Lost creators over it at one point, but they assured him the character would be further developed as the story progressed in future episodes.
“While we were shooting, I remember sitting down with Damon Lindelof and J.J. Abrams and saying, ‘Guys, this character cannot progress in this same way.’ They basically said, ‘Trust us.’ I did, and it turned out for the best. As an Asian actor, you’re just looking to get hired. It’s about working within the system to try and change it when you have the opportunity. The character grew to a place where I don’t think you’d call him a stereotype by the end.”
Still, Kim remembers taking criticism from fellow Koreans and Asian-Americans over his portrayal. In Korean communities, his accent was often the target of criticism as he does not speak in a standard Korean accent, and being American he also has a heavy American accent to many Korean ears.
“…it stung when I felt like the people I was trying to respect and please the most were the ones who were critical of me,” Kim acknowledged. “It was painful because, as my career since then has borne out, I take a great deal of pride in being Korean American. I know that not every representation is 100 percent something we can stand behind all the time, but I choose to look at things as whether they’re moving the needle of progress on a larger scale. I don’t think you can question the positive effect Lost had on representation. You could even argue it has had an effect on the way we cast now, if you look at the copycat shows that came out as a result of Lost.”
Kim is probably right on that last point. Still, many in the business hope to strike a balance. Chinese actress Joan Chen also appreciates the increasing opportunities available to Asians in Hollywood, but has warned about the industry becoming too politically correct at the expense of creative freedom. She starred in Twin Peaks over a decade before Kim’s debut on Lost, arguably paving the way forward for him.